First Person

01.27.14

Clinton, Bush, and Obama Speechwriters on How They Made the State of the Union Address

The Daily Beast’s David Frum, Jon Favreau, and Michael Waldman on writing for, and being edited by, the most powerful man on Earth.

It’s one of the most important speeches any president gives in any year. Both houses of Congress attend, the Supreme Court’s justices, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and nearly the entire Cabinet.

The speech is not mandated. Article II of the Constitution calls only for a report “from time to time” from the president to Congress on how things are going.

It’s the State of the Union Address. And when it comes Tuesday night—when the House Sergeant at Arms shouts: “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States!” the pageantry will begin.

But the main event will be the speech, that combination of substance and style that simultaneously seeks to define the national agenda and persuade Americans and Congress to believe in it.

But how do those words get onto the page? What is the process? What tradeoffs occur? When does a president step in? And when does the president say: This is done.

To get an insider’s view of the art of speechwriting—with special focus on the State of the Union Address—Political Wire Conversations spoke to insiders, speechwriters, from the last three administrations:  

• From the Obama Administration: Former Director of Speechwriting Jon Favreau.

• From George W. Bush: former Special Assistant and Speechwriter David Frum.

• And from Bill Clinton: Former Assistant to the President and Director of Speechwriting Michael Waldman.

Listen to the interview here:

What makes the State of the Union different?

Frum: “It’s a moon launch. It’s a vast, vast undertaking. The State of the Union speech is written in a way that’s quite different from other presidential [speeches]. It’s more assembled than it is written. It’s got a lot of components. Every part of the government is struggling to get its ideas into the Presidential address. When the president says something, it becomes policy. So you’re bolting sections together. And that’s why they’re never gorgeous things as speeches.”

Favreau: “What makes the SOTU special is, especially today, aside from a few championship games and award shows, it is the one event annually that much of the country watches together. And so as a president, you have a very large audience for a long period of time to speak to without the media filter, and just kind of speak directly about your vision and your plans for the country. And I think that is a unique opportunity that each President has. “

Waldman: “For Bill Clinton, he actually used the State of the Union as the central organizing process for his government and his agenda.”

How does the process work?

Waldman: “The processes are different for different presidents, and in some ways it is a reflection of the president himself or herself… [President Clinton] would really work on it for about a month before he delivered it. And it really involved a lot of thinking through about not just what themes he would talk about but what policies he would advance. So for Clinton, he would consult and on his behalf we would consult with outside advisors and thinkers. We would before Christmas compile a thick book of readings for him. He would get memos and advice and drafts from Cabinet members and there would be an ongoing process where the policy staff and policy aides were developing the initiatives that would go into the speech…. We would produce draft after draft—it would go up through 10, 15, 20 drafts. And he would — Clinton would get very deeply involved in editing the drafts and dictating new language. And then for Clinton, a few days before the speech itself, he would go rehearse in the family theater of the White house. And as he was rehearsing at the podium, he would keep writing. So that by the time he delivered it, he knew every inch of his government and every particle of the policies he was putting forward.”

Favreau: “Usually the process works sometime around Thanksgiving. Usually we meet with the president and his top policy and senior advisors and talk about themes for the State of the Union: ‘What is the theme going to be this year?’ Not so much of a slogan, but what is the story we’re trying to tell. What’s the vision you want to lay out? And then what are the big policy initiatives the president is interested in pursuing. From there, all the policy councils in the White House get together and they reach out to the agencies and they come up with a list of various policies and initiatives that the president might pursue in the State of the Union. From there, really, it’s two tracks. One is the policy track where the president and his advisors are basically making decisions on which policies are going to be included in the speech. The other track is actually writing the speech.”

Does it always have to be a laundry list?

Frum: “We’ve also all learned from the Bill Clinton example. Bill Clinton’s State of the Union speeches—as speeches—were dreadful! Big, baggy monsters. But he always did well from them. He would have a real poll bump, because people would listen to hear —would wait for the president to talk about the thing that they cared about. I used to joke that Bill Clinton’s State of the Union addresses were organized like the Koran, by chapter length. Not in logical order, but he would start with the most popular thing that he had to say. And he would proceed to the second most popular. And then he would keep going. And then he would go past one hour, counting on people to stop watching when the clock switched from nine to ten o’clock and go watch something else. And so at 10:02 pm he would say, “And for Mrs. E.F. Williams at 1213 Orchard Dr. in Lexington, KY…” and he would get micro-micro.”

Waldman: “[President Clinton] would give these very long speeches, they would be full of ideas and they would be derided instantly as laundry lists. And the pundits would go on television and say, oh, another flop from Bill Clinton. He can’t help himself. He went on and on. He shows lack of self-discipline. And then they would look at the polls. And what they would notice is that as the speech went on longer and longer, more people tuned in. And people liked it. The public was, and I suspect today is, hungry to hear the details of government from the people they elect to lead them.”

Favreau: “Every single State of the Union process starts with the president and myself saying, ‘This will not be a laundry list. We will do a big vision. And of course by the end there are a whole bunch of policies in there.’ And the problem is, I think it is a good intention for every State of the Union to begin that way. And I’m sure other administrations have done the same thing. You want to err on the side of vision in your speech. But at the same time, you’re trying to cover an entire year’s worth of plans domestically and internationally. So you have to include at least a lot of topics SOTU starts with the president and myself saying this will not be a laundry list, this will be big vision. Biggest challenge is whittling down.”

As a writer, do you mind someone else changing your words—particularly when that person is the President of the United States?

Frum: “Writing for the President is like writing for the movies. So if you have this idea, well, I’m going to write a script, and I’m going to hand it to Michael Bay, and they’re going to do my script, and when people go to the movie, what they’re going to be seeing is… it’s ridiculous. They’re going to see the stars. And they’re going to see the special effects. The script will be changed 97 times. These scripts are not finished documents, they’re processes… so I think it’s really very wrong to think of speechwriters as authors. They’re not. They’re not. Speechwriters are people who are crafting a portion of a total production which has many other values than merely the script.”

Favreau: “The one thing you learn as a speechwriter is to not view your own words and the sentences you write as sacrosanct. You can’t have too much ownership over those because that’s not really your job. Your job is to channel what the president wants to say. But I will say, working for someone who has written two best-selling books and is known for his rhetoric and his speechwriting, when he corrects your sentence, you think to yourself, ‘There’s probably a pretty good reason,’ because he’s a wonderful writer himself and I could learn something from him. Once in a while you have a phrase that you really like that he says, ‘I have a better idea,’ and you think to yourself, ‘Great, let’s go with that.’”

Waldman: “With Bill Clinton, he really wanted to engage with writers and advisors on the ideas behind the stuff and very often he would like to come up with the words himself. So if you were a speechwriter for Bill Clinton, you really couldn’t have a lot of poet’s love for your own words, because they wouldn’t necessarily end up in the final product.”